Estonia’s Signature Dish Being Readied for European Palates

Words by Villu Arak


Remember when you were trying out various signatures, hoping to design that stylish ambassador to represent your interests on paper? Chances are your top pick is still with you today. Here’s the problem: what do you do when you’re in Paris, but need to sign something with someone in London. Use a courier? Jump on the next train?


Effective? Sure. Convenient? Not so much.

Enter digital signatures. Not your ordinary squigglywigglies converted to jpeg, but electronic signatures that carry the same legal weight as if you’d penned it on paper.


Estonia has used them since a 2002 law that gave paper and electronic signatures equal rights. Combined with a secure, universal, and open electronic-ID infrastructure, the country has undergone an invisible revolution. Contracts, government services, tax filings, Internet voting -- rather than proofs of concept, in Estonia they’re as common as potholes in spring.


Now, Estonians are taking their gospel across Europe. One company pushing digital signatures to make life in the EU infinitely easier is Signwise. We caught up with CEO Tiit Anmann to discuss their plans and find out what he thinks of Estonia, its bubbling entrepreneurial kettle, and efforts to make its education scene more international.


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What is the problem that you're trying to attack with Signwise?


Signwise is an advanced electronic signing solution that works across European Single Digital Market and allows a document to be signed within minutes. It relies on government-issued electronic certificates and is therefore legally equivalent to handwritten signatures.


Getting a signature on paper from a client takes substantial effort. It is time-consuming, costly, and not secure. It is even more difficult if the other party is abroad. Another problem is the lack of trust in electronic transactions as counterparties cannot verify each other’s identity. Signwise solves these problems.


What makes you unique among those who seek to plant a flag in the same market?


Compared to proprietary in-country solutions, Signwise is software-as-a-service that’s easy to use. Ours is the first mainstream solution that relies on qualified electronic signatures for both in-country and cross-border use in Europe. Estonia is considered a trailblazer in digital signatures due to its 10+ years of experience, and Signwise scales it to a pan-European level.


How far along are you in delivering on your ambitions?


Our ambition is to make digital signing easy, secure, and affordable for all people, businesses and governments across Europe. We’re in the testing phase right now.


National pride and media hype aside, how much is the Estonian experience helping you on a massive pan-European level? Are we as far ahead as we think we are?


Estonian experience in the digital-signature space is real and delegations of technical specialists from other European countries visit Estonia regularly to understand better what and how has been done and how much of it can be put to use in their home countries. Signwise has packaged the end-user part of the complexity into a simple and affordable  package.


Signwise is being nurtured in the Startup Incubator at Tehnopol. There are conflicting views about the value that accelerators deliver. Are you happy with your choice to grow in an Estonian incubator, as opposed to hacking a more independent path?


It is really not the question of incubators. A start-up, like any other business, needs access to networks, advice, resources, etc. And since all of this is available at an incubator, we decided to be there. Of course, incubation in well-known US or European accelerators would deliver bigger networks, but at the end of the day, the game is about how much you’re willing to work with the opportunities they provide.


It is very important what they can provide. But even more important is what you can take in and how you can make it work in your favor. And when you feel that incubation doesn’t give you anything anymore, then you’re free to break out.


The short bench of Estonian techies and globally ambitious start-up entrepreneurs can hamper the country's long-term progress. Estonia is working to attract international students to the country, in the hope that they build ties to Estonia and launch careers and new businesses here. What do you make of these efforts?


Having been in the industry long enough I agree that it is equally important to make ICT education attractive for both domestic and foreign students. But I still believe that the bench is not short, it is more that Estonians are not ambitious enough to think big, to start their own ventures.


Limited access to resources usually contributes to innovation. We’ve made many innovative solutions with low budgets compared to the US or Europe. Multidisciplinary integrated curricula for students will definitely help develop better synergy, from the resources that we have, to spur new businesses. We should focus on quality, not quantity and therefore concentrate on things we do best in the world and then charge for that value.


How well does Estonian IT education stack up against its better-known rivals from the US and others?


Estonian engineering disciplines need to become more multidisciplinary. But in technical education, we have nothing to be ashamed of, the level is really good.


What fuels the Estonian start-up scene today? And why, if one had the choice, should s/he pick Estonia ahead of the more powerful tech hubs in the Valley, London, or elsewhere?


Any business with global ambition should figure out early where to get the best advice, network, and resources to succeed. Estonia is a good place to start a global B2B business. Establishing a technical team is a clear advantage, but in the long run you need to be closer to your customers, and eventually you’ll end up in bigger markets.